Back in the day, when I was making up my mind to decide where to apply for my university studies, Medicine was in the shortlist. Eventually I ended up being an engineer, but I always wondered what it would have been like to become a doctor.
We have been slowly making progress
From the point of view of an engineer, although extremely complicated, the human body seems just another system, with its own processes and components that are coordinated by chemical and electrical signals. If this is the case, how come, problems that would be trivial in any other system, do not have a practical solution when in the body. Why does medical science and research in life sciences take so long to produce practical results?
Every other year, studies are published stating that the life of flies has been extended by 50% in labs, or that a disease was tackled in guinea pigs. The obvious question readily follows. When will that come true to humans? The answer usually ranges from a vague ‘this is only a very early stage’ to more optimistic statements like ‘in 10 to 15 years a treatment could be commercially available’ which seems only to be partially true. This pace is excruciatingly slow for patients particularly but also for those of us within the technical domain, where we are used to much shorter and faster cycles.
Are we about to speed up?
Over the last century, technology contributed to improve existing procedures, by providing better imaging and diagnosing tools, enhanced interfaces for surgery procedures, more advanced prosthesis and implants based on more versatile and better materials. We can expect that this type of evolution will continue in the years to come. Yet, the advances produced were incremental rather than disruptive. Doctors had to get used to new devices and adapt part of their procedures to use the new technologies, but their role has remained basically the same.
However, new technology advances have the potential to truly modify the boundaries of medicine and redefine the role of doctors. Cloning is not science fiction anymore, and DNA sequencing is already well known… These are just two examples that illustrate how technology is finally redefining what medicine is. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with examples of medical and pharmaceutical practices that could be transformed in the not so distant future:
- The new computing capabilities in our hands and the cognitive and automated learning algorithms that are being developed are speeding up our capabilities to understand how our body works, why it ages, and eventually how to repair it and reverse the damage caused by illness and time. This will lead to personalized treatments for devastating diseases which cannot be cured today, many of them appearing as a result of our extended life span and aging population, but also linked to genetics.
- New simulation technologies, the capability of producing artificial organs made of human tissue, and the availability of unprecedented computational power could also speed up the medical and drug research processes that currently take years to complete, reducing both the time to market for new drugs and the associated costs.
- Diagnostic tests made by lab technicians could be a thing of the past in a few years, as machines will be able to detect any existing condition or conduct predictive health analysis much more accurately than today, based on a patients’ information gathered from wearables and implants, and using large databases of anonymized medical reports.
- Many surgical procedures that are currently performed by doctors, will be carried out by specialized robots faster and with more precision than the best surgeon could ever accomplish, limiting the unintended risks and side-effects of surgery, and alleviating the pressure on the health insurance system.
Doctor or Medical Engineer
This is only the tip of the iceberg, and although I doubt the job of a doctor will be replaced by robots and intelligent computers, as there will always be the need for human interaction and comfort. I do believe that our concept of what medicine is and what is involved in being a doctor will be fundamentally changed by emerging disruptive technologies.
Who knows, in the future, Medicine could be taught in engineering schools, and doctors may be more adept at configuring computers and programming algorithms than at working with scalpels.